Those Wordless Bracelets Might Not Be Saying What You Think They’re Saying

You’ve got plans to hold a VBS this summer in a cross-cultural or overseas context, and you’re feeling the challenges: How do you communicate effectively with kids who don’t speak English? How do you come up with activities that you can fit into a suitcase? Maybe you’ve got a limited budget or time constraints. Yet you have a sincere desire for your team to share Jesus during your trip. 

So maybe you are considering the classic go-to activity for sharing the gospel with kids from a different culture or language: the simple wordless bracelet.

You can order 12 kits for $5.99. They’re fun, they’re cute, and kids love them. Plus, the children now have a tangible reminder of the gospel, right there on their wrists, no language skills required. Perfect.

Maybe not so perfect. Sometimes cross-cultural communication is a lot more complicated than just a language barrier. This classic VBS activity might not be communicating what you think. 

Before you put wordless bracelets into your cross-cultural VBS curriculum, take a moment to consider the following thoughts.

  1. Many cultures in Asia, Africa, and South America have strong beliefs in the spirit world. In order to protect their children against evil spirits, they will often tie an amulet around their wrists. This will be a cloth, twine, or leather cord and may include a few beads. 

So when a group of religious foreigners arrive in their country and put on a children’s program and start tying bracelets around the kids’ wrists that have spiritual meaning…..

Unfortunately, you may have just given those kids a new amulet. 

  1. Languages divide up colors differently. For example, in English, we have a word for red and a word for pink (not light red!). But we say light blue and dark blue. Other languages might use the same word for blue/green or red/orange. And when a person doesn’t have a word for different colors, he might not see them as different. This is fascinating stuff – and something we need to be aware of.
  1. Other cultures assign different meanings to colors than we do. We may see green as representing growth. But in Indonesia, it’s associated with exorcism. In China, it can be associated with infidelity, and in South America it’s connected with death. White is correlated with purity in Western cultures, but in some Asian cultures, it’s a symbol of death. The children in your host culture may not understand the gospel story the way you intend to tell it if they are not making the same color associations. 
  1. Contemplate for a moment the implications of a missions team with lighter skin visiting a group of people with darker skin and telling them that black means sin and white means holiness.  
  1. The gospel presentation that goes along with wordless bracelets is grounded in a guilt/innocence paradigm, which may not be the best way for the message to make sense to the people you are trying to reach. If you are unfamiliar with what I am talking about here, check out this excellent 7 minute video on guilt/innocence, honor/shame, and fear/power worldviews. 

I realize that this list might make you feel a little uncertain about not just wordless bracelets but your entire VBS program. Because if something as simple as a colorful craft might be communicating something different than what you intended, then what does that mean about all of your other activities? So if you are feeling that tension, great! That’s a good place to be. That’s where learning and growth start.

So what should you do?

Start with some research. In the time you have available, your team needs to learn all they can about the history, customs, worldviews, and religion of the people you will be visiting. Hofstede Insights is a great resource for this. Remember–don’t assume that what works in your own country will automatically translate to another culture. 

Most importantly, before you set any plans in stone, run your entire program–teaching, activities, games, songs–past your missionary or local contact. Make it very clear that you want feedback and are open to change. Even better—if there is any way that a local person can do the teaching instead of someone on your team, make that happen! The best way for you to impact a community is to train others to do the program alongside you and then later—without you. 

For more reading about short-term missions, check out these links:

Have you considered how Your Short-Term Trip Should Be About You (And That’s Not a Bad Thing)? Perhaps what God wants to do in you during this trip is more important than the service project you are taking overseas. 

This one has a similar idea: 3 Quick Ways to Improve a Short-Term Missions Trip. How can you reframe your trip for maximum impact in your life and the team’s recipients? 

Also, Sarita Hartz’s What to Do About Short-Term Missions provides a comprehensive list of ways to prevent your team from causing more harm than help overseas. And Short-Term Missions: Is the Price Tag Worth It? offers some thought-provoking insights on ensuring we are stewarding our resources well. 

If you are an overseas worker who is hosting a team this year, then this one is for you: How to Host the Best-Ever Short-Term Team

Also, this excellent video series Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions by the Chalmers Institute is extremely valuable for any church or organization that wants to prioritize short-term missions. 

This is What Courage Looks Like

Sandy was raising support, and she was stuck. She had exhausted all of her contacts – friends, relatives, acquaintances. She had contacted all of the churches where she knew someone, and had reached out to dozens of other churches with no response. Yet she was still far away from that elusive 100% funding goal. 

So she tried a different strategy. Each Sunday morning, she would pick out a church to attend – cold turkey – not knowing a solitary soul.  She would show up at this church where she knew no one, look for a friendly face, strike up a conversation with this complete stranger, and ask if this person could connect her with a pastor or missions leader. 

Sandy is an introvert. She is warm and confident but not the kind of person who especially enjoys entering new churches and striking up conversations with strangers. But she did it because she had to. She was determined to get to the country where God had called her and was ready to do whatever it took.

I was Sandy’s coach during her support-raising season. When she described this to me, my mouth gaped open and my eyes bugged out. All I knew was that I didn’t think I’d ever have the guts to do what she was doing, Sunday after Sunday. This took resolve. This took courage. 

I thought about my own support-raising journey. My husband and I would “divide and conquer” in our support-raising tasks. I wrote the newsletters and thank-you notes; he wrote the sermons. He fixed the printer when I was about to throw it out the window. And having him by my side every time I entered a new church gave me a measure of security.

I coach many single missionary women who are raising support, and they don’t get to delegate these tasks. If they hate public speaking, they don’t have a spouse to pass that off to. If they aren’t good at technology, they still have to figure it out themselves. When their pitch is rejected, there isn’t a partner by their side to share the burden. 

We laud the courage of single missionary women when they single-handedly figure out how to exterminate a rat invasion, stop the flood seeping into their house, or replace a blown-out tire. But we don’t often recognize the additional demands of everything they must do to build a support network on their own.

I realize that much of this could also apply to single men. However, I believe that single women often face unique challenges in earning others’ respect and attention – in foreign cultures, on their missionary teams, and in the churches of their home country. 

As I walk with these women on their journey to the mission field, I brim with tremendous admiration for their grit, perseverance, and resiliency. The truth is, most of these women would love to be married with a family. For many of them, it’s their deepest heart’s desire. Yet they are steadfast in obedience while they trust the Lord with their futures. 

This is what courage looks like. 

Do you have a single female missionary in your life? Probably more than anyone else, they need advocates to raise their support. Maybe that could be you. 

Dear Sending Church: We Need to Get the Parents of Missionaries on Board

My mom sits at her mom’s breakfast table, wailing and pleading. My grandmother sits opposite her, wailing and angry. 

It is one of my earliest memories.

I’d never heard so much emotion out of either of them, and the sunny little room encircled by cabinets of glassware suddenly felt tense, alarming, to my five-year-old soul.

My Gram struggled to accept that we were moving to Africa, so that day at her table was one of many tense conversations. In her anger that my mom was taking away her grandchildren, Gram even consulted a lawyer to see if she could sue for custody. 

During our first two-year term in Liberia, we faithfully sent her letters and pictures. My mom tape-recorded my brother’s and my voices and mailed the cassettes off too. Gram didn’t call once during the entire two years. She didn’t send a single letter. Her anger and grief consumed her. 

My grandmother never understood my parents’ love for Jesus, so their motivation to become missionaries didn’t make sense to her either. But unfortunately, her response wasn’t all that different from many parents who do share their children’s faith. 

In Mobilizing Gen Z, Jolene Erlacher and Katy White quote the Future of Missions study from Barna: “Only 35 percent of engaged Christian parents of young adults say they would definitely encourage their child to serve in missions, while 25 percent are not open to the idea at all.”

They continue, “Career success and physical safety are the top concerns. Nearly half said, ‘I’d rather my child get a well-paying job than be a career missionary.’”

Reading this didn’t come as a surprise to me. I coach new missionaries as they are preparing to move overseas, so I hear their stories of conflict and heartache with parents who don’t approve. Keep in mind that this disapproval often comes from engaged Christian parents – people who have surrendered their lives to Christ, who are hearing the Word of God preached every Sunday. So what is happening here?

Maybe we’ve all just become a lot more fearful in the last few years. Maybe churches have let their missions programs fade away. Maybe Christians have latched on to the idea that two-week stints are all that’s needed for transformative ministry.

I hear many people protest that our own country has its own share of problems, so shouldn’t we narrow our focus here? And that’s true – but we also have churches on every corner. Have we forgotten that almost half of the world’s population has little or no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Will we remember that Christ’s final command to His followers was to disciple the nations? 

When every book tells us to live our best life now, when every advertisement whispers that we need more, deserve more, it’s easy to believe that this life is about our personal fulfillment. We forget that there has always been a cost to the gospel, and that cost might include our most significant treasures. Our comfort. Our dreams. Our children. Or perhaps even more gut-wrenching – our grandchildren. 

My own children are nearing adulthood, and I am beginning to comprehend the depth of the grief I would feel if one of them lived across an ocean. I don’t want to minimize the engulfing sorrow I would experience if I had to watch my grandchildren grow up over Zoom calls.

The sacrifice of missions is real, it’s deep, it’s enduring. Those who leave feel it acutely, but sometimes we forget that those who are left behind feel it just as much. 

The sacrifices only make sense in the light of eternity. Do we have the faith to believe that Christ is worth it? 

Churches are often good at inspiring young people with a fresh vision for the Great Commission, sparking in them a passion for bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. We send our students to Urbana and Cross Con; we sponsor them on short-term trips. 

Yet I can’t help but wonder: How many young people have felt convicted to pursue career missions but can’t find the courage to devastate their God-fearing parents? 

So while we exhort our young people to serve God wherever He calls them in the world, let’s also rally their parents to be their biggest cheerleaders, to open their hands and release their fears and their dreams to the One who sacrificed His own Son so that we might be redeemed.    

And when we celebrate and send out new missionaries, let us also remember the pain of their parents. They need our special attention, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. They need the church to be their surrogate family when their own is ten thousand miles away. They need us to give them the vision of how their sacrifice is an equal part of the Great Commission. Our Savior is worth it. 

Resources for parents of missionaries:
A book: Missionary Mama’s Survival Guide: Compassionate Help for the Mothers of Cross-Cultural Workers by Tori Havercamp 
A website: Parents of Goers
An article: Senders Make Sacrifices Too
A ministry: Parents of Missionaries Ministry

Photo from Dobrila Vignjevic

Your Short-Term Trip Should Be About You (and that’s not a bad thing)

 

It’s kind of a short-term mission trip mantra: “This trip shouldn’t be about you. It’s about the people you are serving.”

I’m here to flip that on its head: This trip isn’t mostly about the people you are serving. It actually should be primarily about you.

And that’s not a bad thing. Stick with me here; don’t write me off yet. 

Let’s start with the second part: this trip is not about the people you are serving. 

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come right out with it: if this trip were really about the people on the other side, then you would just take the $20,000 your team raised and send it to the missionaries or local pastors instead. 

They could support the local economy by buying the supplies you are bringing. They could hire locals to build the house or paint the church – people who are likely desperate for work. They could pay for an expert to train the church members to run the VBS themselves (in the local language) and supplement the income of those church members who need to take time off of work to serve. And with the extra, they could support a local pastor. Or top up the deficit in their ministry account.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that your service is a waste of time. Certainly, God can use you to touch lives. But my point is this: it is unlikely that a team who doesn’t know the language or culture will be able to make a measurable impact in a foreign country in seven to ten days. Often, there are already people living in the country who could do the exact same ministry themselves if necessary. (I know there are exceptions, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.) 

In spite of all this, I’m still a fan of short-term missions. This is not an anti-missions-trip article. Those are out there. This is not one of them. 

So why do I still encourage these trips? Because I believe God can use them to transform lives. Not necessarily the lives of the people you are serving. But your life? Yes! 

Because your short-term trip is actually about you. 

Now, I need to clarify a couple of things here. You’ve all heard the horror stories of teams who complain, criticize, demand – the ones who make the trip about themselves in the nastiest of ways. We personally witnessed a team who thought it would be funny to make a bet as to who could go the most days without showering. (It was only funny to them.) 

Your short-term missions trip isn’t camp or a vacation. You shouldn’t expect room service, predictable schedules, or familiar food. Expect to be uncomfortable. It’s not about your agenda. It’s not about your needs. 

Most of us know this. Duh. Let’s move on. Most of us say, “That’s not me. I’m going to serve.”

That’s great, but there’s still a problem here. Sometimes, our attitude of serving can actually breed a different type of self-centeredness: the kind that feels really good and important with all the wonderful things we are doing. This kind of service puts me up here on this pedestal and the people I’m serving down there in the dust. They need me. They want me. They are so blessed by me. 

This kind of serving can even masquerade as humility. It can say, “I need to do this for these people because they can’t possibly do it themselves. I wouldn’t want to ask them to help me, because this service is my gift to them.” Which is sort of a roundabout way of positioning myself as the hero of the story. Short-term missions trips, unfortunately, are really good at this. 

As you can imagine, this kind of service usually does more harm than good (both for the servers and the recipients). So how do we avoid it? 

Well, let’s reframe your trip. 

Let’s make this trip less about you serving the local people and more about how God can use it to change you. Why would missionaries invite you to come if they know they don’t really need you for this ministry?

Because what they do need is your partnership. They need your encouragement, your fellowship, your questions, your interest in their host country. They need your financial support. They need you to go back home and champion their ministry to your church. 

That last part is key. Maybe you thought you were interested in their ministry before, but once you see it for yourself, your perspective will be blasted wide open. It should be, if you let it. 

Whether or not this happens is entirely dependent on your focus. Is this trip about you feeling good about yourself for serving? Or is it about humbly walking into a cross-cultural situation as a learner, with your hands and your heart open wide to how God wants to transform you? 

Barna’s* study on short-term missions says this:

“As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to listen to each other, valuing and learning from the wisdom and experiences that God has given to each of us. Believers in the slums of Kenya understand God’s provision and sustaining presence in ways that many more affluent Christians do not. African-American brothers and sisters in Birmingham, Alabama, have much to teach Caucasian believers about suffering and forgiveness. But if short-term trips are built around ‘doing,’ accomplishing particular tasks and projects, they cannot create the time or safe space necessary for this type of listening and learning.”

So walk into a short-term trip with an open mind and an open heart, and ask yourself the following questions.

Will you allow God to use this trip to change the way you see those who live in poverty? 
To challenge how sacrificially you give? 
To reenergize how you pray? 
To remodel how you spend your time? 
To transform your priorities back home? 
And finally, might God be calling you to fulfill the Great Commission overseas? If not, could He be calling you to personally advocate for these missionaries or their ministry? 

Yes, one goal of your trip is to serve. By all means, go in with an attitude of dying to yourself and your comfort. Look for ways to love others well, and trust that God can use you to build His kingdom. But you must remember that the success of the long-term impact is entirely connected to your transformed life. 

If you walk away from this trip and go back to your life and nothing changes, then this trip will be a waste. If you are not open to God transforming you, then don’t go – send the money instead. Because this trip is mainly about what God wants to do in you. Will you let Him? 

 

* “A Field Guide to Better Short-Term Missions Trips,” a Barna Group Research Study

I highly recommend the Chalmers Center excellent book/video series “Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions” (the videos are free online!)

I Coped Well in Transition…Until I Didn’t

I remember all the dogs at the Dar es Salaam airport. Usually people don’t travel internationally with their pets, but in the spring of 2020, nothing was normal. The dogs were restless in their cages, but the rest of us stood unusually still, tense, our faces strained from lack of sleep, frantic packing, a thousand unknowns.

I remember the recorded British voice that politely reminded everyone every five minutes: It is not permissible to bring plastic bags into Tanzania. In a dark humor, I thought, How about infectious diseases? 

Just a few days earlier, we got a call in the middle of the night telling us to book a flight as soon as possible. Many in our community were making the same decision, but it was even more significant for us. We had planned a year earlier to relocate to the States in the summer of 2020. So this early, frenzied departure meant leaving a life of sixteen years with no closure, no dignity, no RAFT. 

The memories of these moments in March 2020 are sharp and vivid, as if they happened three days ago, not three years.

In the five days before our departure, I can picture myself lining up my kids’ baby shoes, carefully saved for so many years, and taking pictures of them before handing them off to a friend. I remember making broccoli beef for my last meal in the crock pot I’d owned for 12 years. I remember how our feet echoed on the empty marble floors of the Ramada hotel restaurant on the night before we left. 

I could list thousands of tiny, minuscule details of those five days. My focus was razor-sharp. My emotions were not.

Other than a couple of bursts of despair or panic, I went numb during those five days. And then during the long, unpredictable journey to California. And then during the next three months when we lived like vagabonds, trying to hold together our jobs in Tanzania while applying for new ones in the States.

If you had asked me how I was doing, I would have told you I was okay. I wasn’t happy, and sometimes I was decidedly unhappy, but I didn’t fall into a depression. I got out of bed every morning. I wasn’t crying all of the time. I wasn’t having panic attacks. I wasn’t having nightmares. Well, not many.

I am task-oriented. I did what I needed to do. And big feelings were not on the agenda.

But I was not okay, and that fragility manifested in unexpected ways. Suddenly, I had an aversion to anyone outside my immediate family. I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, even people I normally would have been thrilled to be with. (Pandemic restrictions made this easy.)

Another A Life Overseas writer asked me to be on a podcast of people who were evacuated because of the pandemic. A little voice in my head said, “You like things like this.” But a bigger, louder voice said, “No. No. NO. Not even an option.” The big voice didn’t give me a reason. It just bullied me into saying no. 

I stopped writing. I went months where my mind was mostly devoid of anything to write about, even though it was usually the best way to process my feelings. It was like my emotions froze, and I became a robot. 

I was trying to adapt to a new life, and I was restless and impatient. I wanted to feel productive and meaningful again. But I had no energy, no creativity, no mental space. I could only focus on what was directly in front of me. I was frustrated that I couldn’t do more, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t. I thought I was fine. I knew I was sad, but I thought I was handling our transition well. 

I wasn’t. Not really.

About a year and a half after our arrival, my brain and body decided to shut down, and I stopped sleeping for ten days. I finally got help. I told the urgent care doctor, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I know what anxiety feels like, but this is different. It’s like I’m on overload and can’t get my pulse to slow down.” That admission was the beginning of feeling better.

I’ve been back three years, and it’s taken me that long to figure out what was happening inside me during that first year and a half. I only see it now in hindsight. 

There are times in life you know you’re a mess; the pain or the fear is big and consuming. Every moment of every day feels like a fight. (I’ve had seasons like that, and this wasn’t one of them.)

But other times, you don’t realize you’re in a fog. You are coping quite well. You are doing what you need to do. You don’t realize your soul is actually withering. Then one day, the sun breaks through the clouds and triggers a distant memory: Oh yes! This is what warmth feels like. 

This is what it feels like to be creative, my mind brimming with ideas.
This is what it’s like to live without a constant sense of being overwhelmed.
This is what it feels like to be happy.

I didn’t recognize that I wasn’t doing well until I started to feel better, and to remember what it feels like to be fully alive. 

Today, I love being with friends and meeting new ones. I’m doing seminars for small and large groups. I was a guest on a podcast. My brain comes up with way more things to write about than I have time to get them out. 

I don’t think I anticipated the jarring effect the transition would have on my body, mind, and soul. Or that it would last as long as it did. Seeing this in myself has given me empathy for others around me who are in transition: the new parents, new empty-nesters, the immigrant. How can I show them grace? How can I help to bring light into their fog? How can I walk alongside them for as long as it takes, knowing it will probably take longer than anyone anticipated? 

But also, I want to remember to give myself grace the next time. To be more patient with myself. To remember that some of the hardest parts of life must simply be faced a day at a time until they get better. 

This morning at church, a song unearthed a sweet memory of Tanzania, and I cried. For what I left. For what I’ve missed. For what I’ve gained. For how far I’ve come. 

The Hidden Super-Stars of Missions

 

I coach new missionaries as they prepare to go overseas. I’ve found I can often predict how quickly they’ll be able to raise support based on one crucial factor: whether they have an advocate who will come alongside them.

What do I mean by an advocate? Let me explain.

Raising support has got to be one of the most daunting experiences in any missionary’s life. So God’s called me to India, but I need you to fork over some cash so I can do it. Sound good? Awesome. What can I put you down for?

Let’s hope it doesn’t come out exactly like that, but it’s what missionaries dread. Raising financial partners has extraordinary joys, but it also comes with dark lows. It’s incredibly intimidating. Dozens – maybe hundreds – of friends ghosting their calls, emails that don’t get replies, events where no one shows up. It can be one of the most demoralizing experiences in a person’s life.

Who can turn that whole experience around? An advocate. 

A missionary advocate is someone who enthusiastically comes alongside a missionary and says, “Let’s get that support raised!” 

The Springs in Missouri is a church that has sent out several homegrown missionaries in the past two decades. All those missionaries pointed to Ken and Tracy Coleman as vital in making that happen, so I decided I needed to talk to these super-star advocates.

Tracy told me, “When missionaries are raising support, we invite a big group to our house. We let the missionary tell their story. Then we share what donating to missions has done for us personally. We explain how God has blessed us to be part of what God is doing overseas.”

She added, “We challenge people, ‘This is what God is calling The Springs to. This missionary is a tool for that to happen. How can we get them to the mission field? How can we support them in other ways?”

Friends, this is a missionary’s dream scenario. It helps the missionary to know he’s not alone. It helps create true partnerships in missions. And it takes away all the stress of asking for funding. 

When a church is too busy or distracted to pay attention to an upcoming missionary, an advocate steps in and rattles some chains. When a missionary is overwhelmed by planning a large dinner, an advocate rallies the troops to make it happen. And when the missionary is depressed and despairing that she’s reached the end of her contacts and has no idea how she’ll raise the final 30%, that advocate is her cheerleader, praying for her and brainstorming fresh ideas.

Maybe this advocate isn’t just one person but a group of people – like a home group or Bible study group. Even better!

And once that missionary has deployed overseas (or in stateside service), that advocate keeps in touch with him. She’s the one who makes sure the rest of the church knows when there’s something big to pray for. When the missionary comes home on furlough, the advocate is the one who organizes housing and a car for the missionary to use. She prompts the missions committee to buy a few gift cards. She communicates with church leaders to find opportunities for the missionary to speak. 

I cannot overstate the power of a missionary advocate.

Maybe you have a burning passion to see the gospel go to the nations, but God has called you to stay in your home country. Besides praying and giving, what can you do? Perhaps God is calling you to be an advocate for your missionary. 

A Pocket Guide for Talking to Missionaries: Dozens of Missionaries Open Up About Questions They Love and Questions They Don’t

“Soooo…..how’s Mongolia?”

Let’s be realistic here. There really is no perfect way to start a conversation in the church foyer with someone you haven’t seen in three years. Especially if that person has been living in Mongolia. 

Uh, Mongolia’s good. All good. Cold, but good.

Cue awkward silence while both parties are nodding and fake smiling. 

But hey, at least this person remembered the name of the country. That counts for something. Especially because any missionary will tell you that the awkwardness of “How’s [fill in the blank country name]?” is eclipsed only by the even awkwarder question “How was your trip?”

My “trip” that took three years and included a child being born, another almost dying of malaria, a church plant, five moves, one flood, a new language, and an unfortunate incident involving a police officer and a scorpion? That trip? Um, it was good.

We know you mean well. We’re thankful you’re even talking to us. It’s far worse standing in a church lobby with no one to talk to (because that’s happened too). We’ve got gobs of grace for awkward questions. But may we offer some suggestions? 

We asked some cross-cultural missionaries which questions they dread (and what they would love to be asked!). Want to make a missionary’s day? Keep reading.

The Church Foyer Questions (a.k.a. Small Talk)

Don’t ask questions that assume they feel at home.

Ashleigh: One question I dread is, “Aren’t you happy to be home? or “Do you miss it here?” How do I answer either one of those? I can’t explain myself because often I don’t know what home is or how I feel about either location. I love both, but I also miss the other when I’m not there. 

Meredith: When they come back to their sending country for furlough, don’t say, “It must be great to be home!” The place where they serve is becoming home. 

Instead ask questions that reconnect.

“We’re so happy to see you! It must be so disorienting to be back here after so long. I’m ____, in case you forgot.” 

“Can you remind me of your kids’ names and ages?”

“How long was your plane ride? What airports did you pass through?”  

“What weather change did you experience when you got on a plane there and arrived here?” 

“Who are the people you’ve been excited to see?” 

Or ask about something specific from their recent newsletter or social media post. 

Don’t ask how their vacation is going.

Lynette: Although I may be home on furlough, it’s still not a holiday! Many missionaries spend their “holiday” in their home country, but it’s far from restful. Fundraising, updating, and meeting sponsors simply have to be done and are vital to continuing the mission, but it’s not a break from the work. Only a different environment.

Jenny: Don’t assume their furlough or stateside visit is restful or that they are on an extended vacation.

This question is so discouraging that we wrote a whole post on it.

Instead ask what this time looks like for them.

“I know you’re working hard while you are here. What does your time here look like?”

“Will you be able to take a vacation?” 

“What fun things are you looking forward to doing while you are here?” 

“What’s the restaurant everybody in your family wanted to visit first?” (Bonus points for following this up with: Can I take you to lunch there after the service?) 

Bottom line: Assume your visiting missionaries are feeling awkward and disoriented. Keep it light. Keep it welcoming. Don’t monopolize their time. Introduce them to others. Save the deeper stuff for when you have more time to chat.

The Coffee, Dinner, or Small Group Questions

Don’t ask questions about a “typical” day or week.

Joshua: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical week look like?”

Fred: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical day look like?” I love the heart behind this one, and it’s heading in the right direction! You are trying to get a picture of what life looks like, and that’s awesome! 

Most missionaries don’t have a typical day or week. Instead ask more specific questions.

Marilyn: “How is life different for your family there than it is in the U.S.?”

Joshua: “What do you love about your city? (Or about the people where you serve?)”

Jean: “What breaks your heart?”

Linda: “Where have you seen God at work?” 

Kimberly: I love any questions about what we see as cultural differences, church differences, ministry differences.  I love explaining that I feel both cultures can learn from each other. 

Don’t ask questions that assume the worst about their host country.

Amanda: Don’t ask about the weirdest food we eat. It’s not “weird” in our host country—it’s normal and cultural.  

Matyas: I don’t like questions about politics through the lens that the person asking already has a “right” answer. For example: “Is Hungary a dictatorship?” This assumes they already think Hungary is, and they aren’t open to changing their perspective after they hear the answer.

Heather: “Doesn’t it make you thankful for how blessed we are here (meaning America)?”

Angela: “Is it safe?” I hate this question. Most people don’t understand the complexity of answering this question as a single female in the field. [For thoughts on safety overseas, go here.]

Instead ask open-ended questions about cross-cultural life.

Ashleigh: One question that I love is, “What was your first/biggest culture shock?” And I think it is a great question because it is always so unique to each person, and so incredibly different depending on the cultural context.

Stephanie: Missionaries appreciate humor and being asked about normal life things! It’s lonely out there, and we want everyday-type of connection.

Matyas:  I like questions about people. “How are the people thinking or how are they different?” I like to talk about different cultures and different worldviews. 

Rachel: “What makes London [or host city] feel like home? What are your favorite local places/people, etc.?”

A.W. Workman: “How have you changed since you went overseas?” 

Don’t ask why they aren’t serving in their home country instead of abroad.

Peggy: “Why are you helping kids in Africa when so many kids in our own country need help?” I get this question surprisingly often.

Megan: “Couldn’t you do that in America?” (‘that’ being coaching, cross-cultural outreach, immigrant work, etc.) 

When it comes from Christians, this question is demoralizing since the Bible makes it clear that reaching the nations should be a priority. If you’re not convinced, take a Perspectives class

Don’t get too personal.  

Kendra: Don’t put pressure on the single missionaries to talk about being single on the mission field. There’s so much more to a person than their marital status. You wouldn’t ask any other secular professional about their personal life…it would be considered very inappropriate and crossing a lot of boundaries. Chances are their work and their people are what they’re in love with currently anyway. 

Rachel: [I dread] questions to or about our teens/kids that assume they are spiritually ‘solid,’ or consider themselves to be missionaries, without realizing that (like most kids) their faith may be still developing.

Beth: We’ve been asked, “How’s your marriage going?” How can we possibly answer that question in a group setting with people we don’t know well (or could remove our funding!)? 

Instead, save these questions for close relationships or a member care/debrief setting (see the next section below).

Bottom line: Be curious. Yes, ask about their ministry, but also ask the non-spiritual questions

Questions for Missions Care Teams and Close Friends

Bottom line (but at the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.

Don’t ask for numbers.

Jocelyn: Please don’t try to quantify work down to how many baptisms, healings, conversions we have been part of. We are broken and walk alongside broken people, and we are not responsible for numbers. We are responsible to love people. The complexity of the life situations and injustices we walk through with people as we work overseas are immense. We feel misunderstood by others when the validity of the work is quantified by “conversion stories” and “how many baptisms.”

Instead ask about the highs and lows of ministry.

Meredith: “Where have you seen the Lord at work? What’s the most encouraging (or discouraging) thing about your ministry right now?”

Brook: Ask questions about real people, like having the missionary choose one person they are working with and share either disappointments or exciting things they see in that person’s growth and maturity.

Jonathan Trotter: “What are your dreams? What are you looking forward to? How can we support you in the future?” 

Do ask about their health (physical, mental, spiritual, marriage & family) and support systems.

Matt: Senders in a position of responsibility should ask very direct questions about their missionary’s future. Are they planning well for future financial needs? Do they have adequate life insurance, and are they investing appropriately in their physical and mental health?

Audrey: So many missionaries deal with [trauma] and I believe it’s because people don’t know what to do that they tend to ignore it. Many things we face overseas are beyond the comprehension of those who live in our sending countries. Big issues are ignored, not because we are not loved, but because no one knows what to do or how to help. Civil wars, coups, abuse of power by those in authority, constant goodbyes as people come and go in your community — the trauma can be big or small, but it is very real.

Laura: Leave room for conversations about the hard stuff — marriages falling apart, frustrations with ministry, discouragement, feeling out of place in our passport countries, etc. We’re human, too. We’re not “saviors.” Treat us like regular folks and listen to our stuff, too.

Deanna: Is their children’s TCK identity being adequately cared for? Spousal relationship, prejudices toward the people/culture, and how God is working in that?  These can be pretty invasive questions, but it is necessary for missionaries to evaluate these hard topics and for those sending to help them with that, especially if their sending agency is hands-off or lacks resources.

Bottom line (repeated from the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.

Like everyone, missionaries want to be seen, heard, and understood. They want to be cared for and prayed for. 

So our last word of advice is to please listen and pray.  

Benjamin: Listen well, be curious, laugh lots. You don’t have to completely understand every nuance of the culture they’re serving in to be a great listener, empathize, and pray for them. 

Judi: Listen . . . Don’t talk. Don’t ask too many questions. Just listen. With eyes intent and an open heart.

Karin: Ask about their joys and their sorrows — really listen — and pray with them right there. Being heard, especially in our areas of grief and sorrow, means the world when we are travelling and speaking and sometimes feeling like everyone thinks we are better than we are!

Anna: Don’t talk. Listen. The end. 

Angie: The question I love is “How can we pray for you, your family, and the pastors you work with? Give us specifics.”  (When someone wants to know the specifics, it makes me feel truly cared for. They are not assuming they know what we need; they are asking for the details.)

We really don’t have words to express how grateful we are for those who love us and partner with us in taking Christ’s hope to the nations. Thank you for caring about missionaries!

My Love/Hate Relationship with Living on Support

Lois was only a few weeks away from death when I visited her in a nursing home. Lois was a widow, and she supported our ministry in Tanzania at $200 a month as a widow. By the time I could visit her, she had developed cancer. I told her how grateful we were that she supported our family so generously for so many years. 

“It’s my pleasure,” she told me, her eyes bright with the energy her body lacked. “You know, I discussed this with my kids. They agreed that they didn’t need a big inheritance. They are okay with me giving away my money to missionaries.” I sat there dumbfounded, tears in my eyes.  

In Tanzania, we attended a church where we were often the only non-Africans present. One Sunday, the preacher spoke passionately about God’s call to cross-cultural missions. Afterward, an African woman I had never met approached me. She smiled and said, “Thank you for serving as missionaries!” She handed me an envelope containing about $75 – a considerable amount for many Tanzanians. My eyes gaped. My mouth gaped. I’m sure I looked like a codfish. All I could think was, She probably needs this more than I do. Yet I knew it would insult her to refuse, so I sputtered out my thanks and hugged her.

Our mission organization keeps a database of every donation we’ve received since we first moved overseas in 2001. Sometimes I look at the cumulative totals our donors have given us, some going back 20 years. They could have gone on a nice vacation with that money, I think to myself. Maybe an Alaskan cruise. That family could have remodeled their kitchen or bought a car with these donations. And in one case, They could have bought another house with that money. Not kidding. A whole house. 

When we knew we would relocate from Tanzania to the States in 2020, my husband and I started a job search. We cast our net far and wide, looking at schools, churches, and non-profits. There was one thing, however, that I was adamant about: whatever we decided to do next, I did not want to be in a support-raising position. No siree. I had been there, done that. No matter how cool an opportunity sounded, if it required raising support, I was out. I’d lived on support for 18 years. It was time to move on. 

But I have this wonderful friend, Alyssa, who has this habit of drilling into my soul. So when I told her my intention of finding a regular, non-support-raising job, she was not satisfied. “Why not?” she insisted. “What if God shows you the perfect job that is a perfect fit for you, but you have to live on support? Would you still say no?”

It’s so irritating when Alyssa is right. A couple of months later, God dropped that exact scenario into my lap, and I was forced to reckon with my resistance to living on support. What was my problem? God had always provided abundantly for us through the generosity of others. I loved the relationships I had formed with supporters. So why did I hate it so much?

I thought of Lois, and the woman with the envelope at church, and the people who could have bought a house with their donations. I realized I hated how their generosity made me feel so….humbled.

When you are trained in support-raising methods, they tell you that “the ask” will be hard. It’s challenging to look someone in the eye and ask if they will sacrificially donate money so that you can fulfill your calling. But you know what they don’t tell you? That asking may be hard, but receiving is even harder. 

After all, I’m a good, hard-working American with some hefty bootstraps. I don’t want to be dependent on anyone. I don’t want anyone to sacrifice on my behalf. I’d rather earn my keep. 

And therein lies my problem. Living on support feels like grace, and I don’t like grace. 

Those words fly out of my brain and through my fingers, and I instantly feel foolish. Considering that grace is the heart of Christianity, you could say this attitude is a problem for someone following Christ. 

The Creator of the universe lowered Himself to become dependent on mortals, so who do I think I am that I should refuse to depend on others? Is this not the Lord’s earth, and everything in it? Is it not God who provides for my needs, even when I try to provide for myself?

Daily I must release my independence. I cannot be self-reliant, and when God provides through others, I must lower my pride and receive it. I am not in control; I cannot spend my money as though I deserve it, and I am reminded that I am only a steward of God’s resources. Ironically, living on support teaches me how I should be living as a Christian. 

I surrendered and said yes to the perfect job that was a perfect fit, even though it meant I had to rely on support. I am ground to the dust in gratitude for the three churches and 76 households who faithfully continue to financially support me. But Jesus spent a lot of time in the dust, so I love the opportunity to identify with Him. 

Photo by Andre Taissin on Unsplash

Trusting God With What You Leave Behind

A few weeks after we arrived in Tanzania, Gil and I heard breaking glass in the middle of the night. Imagining the worst, we rushed downstairs to discover that one of our pictures had fallen off the wall. No big deal.

Except that the picture represented something that was a big deal. In it, Gil and I stood smiling on a park playground with a half dozen other adults and about 30 kids. We all wore navy blue Faithblast! shirts. This was a photo of the weekly kids’ club that Gil and I had started in Southern California. 

Gil and I barely knew each other when we started FaithBlast, and it’s how we fell in love. The ministry was our baby. We nurtured it for four years, and it blossomed into further neighborhood outreach. Our story was inextricably linked with that neighborhood, that playground, those kids. 

Knowing we were heading overseas, Gil and I had fervently searched for someone to take over the ministry when we were gone. But there was no one. When we left, the FaithBlast ended.

So when the picture fell off the wall and the glass smashed into pieces, it felt eerily symbolic. Fresh tears came. Why had we left a thriving ministry that was so dear to us to come to this unfamiliar and uncomfortable place where we had to start from scratch all over again? 

In the excitement of following God’s call to another country, it’s easy to underestimate the repercussions of your departure. Maybe, like us, it’s a ministry that falls apart. Perhaps it’s aging parents who don’t understand. Maybe it’s siblings in crisis or a beloved church in upheaval. Perhaps it’s hurting a friend whose wedding you can’t attend. Maybe there isn’t an obvious replacement for the role you filled, and you know you are leaving behind a burden on others.

When we say yes to God’s call to missions, we first think about the sacrifices God is asking us to make. We count the cost of leaving homes, family, jobs, community. But it’s our choice, and we walk into it willingly. What about the sacrifices we are asking others to make on our behalf? We are making that choice for them, and that burden can feel heavy.

Jesus said that everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for His sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:29). 

It’s a stunning promise. But what about those we leave behind? Can we trust God with them too?

This is tricky, and not just for those leaving for the first time. For those deep into overseas ministry, this question will haunt us for the rest of our lives – on both sides of the world. Do we fill the need at home, or do we fill the need overseas? Both choices leave projects unfinished, loved ones with empty spaces in their lives. How do we choose?

We must ask ourselves the hard questions and dig out our motivations. Am I going or leaving or staying because I’ve made an idol of family or position or comfort? Am I shirking my responsibility, or I am trying to take the role of God in another person’s life? Is it clear that it’s my job to care for this person, to mediate that conflict, to push that ministry forward? Or is God asking me to surrender that to Him? 

As the old song tells us, Trust and Obey. But in this case, Obey and then Trust. Walk forward in obedience, and trust Him with what we can’t do. 

In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote, 

If we obey God, it is going to cost other people more than it costs us, and that is where the pain begins. A lack of progress in our spiritual life results when we try to bear all the costs ourselves. And actually, we cannot. Because we are so involved in the universal purposes of God, others are immediately affected by our obedience to Him. . . . We can disobey God if we choose, and it will bring immediate relief to the situation, but it will grieve our Lord. If, however, we obey God, He will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience. We must simply obey and leave all the consequences with Him. Beware of the inclination to dictate to God what consequences you would allow as a condition of your obedience to Him.

When we left California in 2001, we left behind FaithBlast. When we left Tanzania in 2020, my replacement was only temporary, and Gil’s position wasn’t filled at all. Once again, we had to trust God with what we left behind. 

Our ministry, on any side of the globe, always belongs to God. The people we love are in His hands. Where I see only a small piece; He sees the complete picture. When He makes it clear it’s time to leave, then I can trust that He knows what He is doing with what I leave behind. 

Dealing With Abuse Overseas is Complicated

What struck me the most were her lifeless eyes. Without emotion, the young teenager related to me disturbing descriptions of abuse in her home. Her father would verbally assault her and yank her hair. He would beat and kick her mother, locking her out of their bedroom for hours.

My horror quickly turned to despair. As a teacher, I knew about mandatory reporting of abuse. But this was not the United States. I had no one to report to.

*******

Amid the wreckage of abuse revealed in recent years, we can rejoice that many organizations now have their eyes wide open. New protocols. New safety standards. Tough policies. If you are serving overseas, hopefully your organization has already required all staff to complete child protection training. (If not, stop what you are doing right now and implore your leadership to get on the ball with this. Right now. Don’t wait. And keep nagging until it happens.)

In developed countries, there is no longer any room for excuses. Basic child safety procedures should be routine: Screen all workers. An adult should never be alone with a child. Doors and curtains should be left open. Workers should be trained to write incident reports. All signs of abuse should immediately be reported to authorities.

Unfortunately, in many countries, this is not so simple. And that’s what we need to talk about.

Standard child safety training (as important as it is), does not take into account the complications of life in a developing country. When I say I had no one to report to in my opening story, that’s exactly what I meant. I was living in a country where Child Protective Services did not exist. Beating a child or a wife was not only socially acceptable, it was ordinary. If I had gone to the police, they would have laughed at me. So what is there to do in this kind of situation? 

Or, let’s say you are in a position to hire or train children’s workers. What should you do if you live in a country that doesn’t do background checks? Or in a place where bribes are so common that you know you can’t trust the system? 

Or, what if you are in over your head with a suicidal or self-harming teenager? You know the protocol should be to pass her on to a professional, yet you are living in a location where there are no mental health professionals available to help. Maybe an ex-pat, English-speaking, or wealthy teenager might find hope in a telehealth option, but that’s not possible for the kid you are working with. What do you do?

I’m not an expert on these kinds of agonizing situations, although I faced them many times in my work overseas as a youth leader, chaplain, teacher, and principal. I had to document the injuries inflicted on a child by his father. My husband and I were called in the middle of the night by the mom of a teen attempting suicide. Not because we were experts, but because there was no one else.

I believe we need to do some hard thinking and praying in these circumstances, preferably in advance. We need help and advice from those who have gone before us so that we are not caught off guard. 

I wish I could say that my husband and I always did the right thing. But we tried the best we could, and we learned many things along the way. Here are a few:

  • In the absence of background checks, we asked for a reference from a pastor or a community leader. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it helped.
  • We did what we could to enter into families’ lives. We discovered that oftentimes abusive parenting happened not because the parents were evil, but because they knew no other way. When given the option of counseling and parenting advice, they often were willing to receive it. 
  • We educated ourselves. We learned about self-harm, trauma, and eating disorders. And if we couldn’t refer a student to a mental health professional, we could at least get a medical doctor involved. 

If you are looking for more resources on this subject, you can start right here at A Life Overseas:

One thing we get terribly wrong in our response to abuse. And one way to get it right. 

Ask a counselor: What about child abuse? 

Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field and the follow up Telling My Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field

Here are some helpful organizations that can provide support, resources, and training:

There are no easy answers here, and this article is just the beginning of the discussion. But I believe that together, we can work for positive change. So I invite you into the conversation. How have you dealt with abuse when serving overseas? What resources would you suggest? What other factors do we need to consider? 

It’s the Week Before You Move Overseas. What Are You Feeling?

It’s the week before you move overseas. What are you feeling?

Everything. You are feeling everything. 

Excitement: This is finally happening!

Fear: What was I thinking? I can’t do this!

Guilt: Every time my mom looks at me, she starts crying. How can I do this to her?

Focused: If I put more books in my carry-on, I can squeeze in an extra five pounds of chocolate chips. Let’s do this.

Worried: What if I oversleep and am late to the airport? What if I lose my passport? What if my bags are too heavy at the airport and they make me rearrange everything? What if I throw up? I really might throw up.

Stressed: Fourteen friends stopped by today to say goodbye, but all I can think about is that I need to buy my daughter one more pair of sandals in the next size. Oh, and this suitcase is hovering at 52 pounds. Something’s got to come out, and it might send me over the edge. 

Peaceful: I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I’m fulfilling my calling!

Sad: Every time I look at my mom, I start crying. How can I say goodbye for two years?

Grumpy: My children keep asking for lunch. Don’t they know I have to find room for these chocolate chips? 

Exhausted: I woke up at 5 this morning with a racing heart. After I fell asleep at midnight with a racing heart. 

Overwhelmed: That’s an understatement.

When that country was but a dream in your head, when you went through the application process, raised support, even applied for a visa – it all was hypothetical. But when it gets down to those final weeks and days, this is when it really gets real.

You sell your house and move in with your parents. You put your life’s memories out on the lawn, and you watch strangers carry away your furniture and your wedding presents. You hand over your house key, your work key, your car key, until all you have left is an empty, lonely key ring. You read the church bulletin and realize that you won’t be participating in that upcoming women’s retreat, that prayer meeting, that picnic. Life will go on without you, and suddenly, you feel as empty and lonely as your key ring. 

Pieces of your life crumble away around you as you squish the remnants into four 50-pound suitcases. It feels as if your life has become very small, and the foundation is gone, and you might as well be flying into outer space. 

The reality of leaving the people you love becomes tangible. Whether your family is supportive or not, you’re absorbing their grief. If you have young kids, they may be throwing fits or bedwetting or stuttering or acting more whiny than usual. But your mind isn’t stuffed full of just emotions, but also details. You can’t sit and process your feelings because you’ve got to think about visas, packing, tickets, covid tests. If the intensity feels extreme, it’s because it is. 

Don’t be surprised if you fall apart, finding yourself weeping under the covers. Don’t be surprised if you just go numb, completely overwhelmed to the point of being unable to feel anything. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself overly angry, overly anxious, overly nauseous. 

Having been there many times myself, this is what I want you to remember:

Don’t be surprised. The intensity of the emotions you are experiencing is normal, and will likely continue to intensify until you get on that plane. But it will have an end. Hang in there. It will have an end. 

Breathe. Make lists. Ask for help. 

Ask someone else to occupy your kids, preferably away from the house. The last thing your kids need is to be in the middle of the packing chaos and emotionally charged air. Get someone to take them to Chuck E. Cheese. Everyone will be much happier. 

Prioritize who you spend time with. Rank your friends. (See #6 of Jerry Jones’ tips. Actually, all of his tips are great.)

Give yourself grace. Give your kids grace. Give your mom grace. There’s no easy way through this; you just have to plow forward. It doesn’t get easier the second time, either, or any time after that. The only thing that gets easier is that you will know what to expect, and you will know it’s temporary. 

Breathe. God led you this far; He’s going to see you through. 

*Feelings chart by Rebekah Ballagh.

To Bribe or Not to Bribe? That is the Question.

We were on our way home from church and stopped at a petrol station.

We fished around for cash; credit cards weren’t an option in our host country. My husband had only 50,000 shillings on him.

As the attendant filled the tank, I triumphantly rustled up another 30,000 shillings from the depths of my purse. “Aha! We can top up now!” I declared.

I leaned over and asked the attendant, “Please add another 30,000.”

But instead of giving us more gas, the guy pulled out a wad of receipts from his pocket and rifled through them. He pulled out one for 80,000 shillings and offered it to me with an arched eyebrow.

I stared at him, baffled. What on earth was going on?

Suddenly it dawned on me: he didn’t realize I was asking for more gas; he thought I wanted a receipt for 30,000 more than what we had paid. Why would he make that assumption and then nonchalantly comply? 

Because it was a commonplace request. 

In our host country, hiring a driver to run errands was routine. It was also routine for that driver to fill up the gas tank and then bring his employer an inflated receipt for reimbursement, making himself some profit on the side. 

So when customers left their receipts behind, the gas station attendants collected them, ready to dutifully pass them on to pilfering drivers. If I had wanted a false receipt, all I needed to do was ask. Embezzlement was that easy.

****

I sat in the cubicle next to the designer’s computer as she put the finishing touches on the banner I was requesting. 

“Looks great!” I exclaimed. “You said 150,000 shillings, right? Please put the name of my school on the receipt.”

“Oh, if you want a receipt, it will be an additional 20%,” she quickly corrected me. 

20%: The government sales tax.

Why wasn’t the tax automatically included in the quotation? I didn’t need to ask why; I had heard the answer before. Many customers would go elsewhere if she included tax in her quotations. If her business wanted to compete, her only choice was to offer under-the-table prices. She was trapped.

****

I entered my new culture in my early 20’s, idealistic and naive, ready to change the world. The reality of ethics in a developing country smacked me in the face.

I heard first-hand accounts of teachers who withheld critical exam information from students who wouldn’t pay up. Nurses who ignored any patient who wouldn’t tip them in advance. Social workers who bent adoption laws for the right price. Visas granted only to those succumbing to bribes.

It seemed pure evil until I became aware of the other side of the story. Indeed, greed was part of the equation, but sometimes employees weren’t paid enough to live on – or their paychecks were backlogged for months. Desperation was also a factor. 

In a society where no one plays fair, picking yourself up by your bootstraps sometimes means stealing the boots first. If you want to get ahead, you have to play dirty. 

So what happens when foreigners find themselves trying to help those locked in corrupt systems? Should we capitulate, arguing that it’s better to give in, as long as we do good work? Or do we defy corruption, even if it means suffering the consequences?

The answer is not always clear. In some places, what we might see as a bribe is interpreted as a “pre-tip” for expedited service. We must observe and explore these cultural nuances, recognizing that the conclusion is not always black and white. 

Many times, however, corruption is blatant. Occasionally, acquiescing is a matter of life or death. But should cooperation with corruption be our default?

Confronting corruption is costly. It’s easier to slip the police officer a few bills and drive away than spend an hour arguing for justice. It’s cheaper to give in to the customs official demanding a bribe than to be charged exorbitant fees. Waiting for visas can stretch for months when you refuse to grease the wheels.

But do we want to see quick fixes or lasting change? Corruption breeds oppression for the vulnerable. When fraud has free reign, the subsistence farmer can’t get a fair price for his crops. The small shop owner can’t compete with powerful companies. Emergency aid fills the stomachs of government workers instead of displaced refugees. When we feed that system, we hurt the powerless. 

We must remember that as expatriates, we are privileged. We have money, resources, and safety nets. Someone has got to break corruption’s cycle, and those of us with privilege should be the first to fight. 

Our attempt to stand up against corruption may seem feeble. Is it worth the trouble? That’s not our concern. Our job is to obey God, do the right thing, and trust Him with the result.

The day may come when our small acts of integrity result in large-scale transformation. I know people who have found themselves perfectly positioned to go head-to-head with an entire corrupt system, and miraculously, they see change manifesting right before their eyes. They are immersed in a profoundly challenging and spiritual battle, but their story proves that change is possible.

Cynicism is the pendulum swing from naivete, and neither is healthy. Somehow we must walk the tightrope between wisdom and suspicion. Not every government official in a developing country is corrupt, and foreigners are not saints. As Christians, we should be alert to the brokenness in this world and ourselves – but also never lose hope. 

****

The police officer stepped into traffic and held out his palm in front of me. Sighing, I pulled to the side of the road so that he could inspect my car. “Ah! Look at this,” he announced. “Your insurance has expired.”

I groaned inwardly. He was right. My insurance had expired the day before, escaping my notice. 

He demanded a 40,000 shilling fine. “I will pay it,” I told him, “but only if you give me a ticket.”

He did not have a ticket book, and I refused to pay without it. We reached an agreement: I would go to the police station to pay my fine and leave him my license as collateral. When I could show him proof of payment, he would give it back.

The next day, I got up early and drove 45 minutes to the police station. The police there laughed at me. “Why didn’t you just pay the officer? We don’t have any ticket books here either.”

I drove to another station: same result. Finally, at the central police station downtown, in the little room at the very back, I found an officer with an authorized ticket book where I could pay my fine (which was actually only 20,000 shillings).  

In the end, it took four hours to pay my fine legitimately. But I felt as successful as a Jedi rebel, a small act of defiance against the Empire. It was worth it.